One year on – Plain Language Issues persist in Gov. websites despite Plain Writing Act

Fergal McGovern

CEO & Founder

4 min read

This week marks the first anniversary of the US Plain Writing Act on October 13th. The act is all about clear and transparent communication and the importance of plain language. Given the anniversary, it’s useful to check how agency websites are complying.

So, last week, on October 3rd we scanned 31 federal agency websites with VisibleThread. The scans revealed some agencies doing really well, while others remain challenged.

We plan to publish the full results soon. I wanted to share in this blog post some initial findings. These are items that caught our eye as we reviewed the scans. We hope these will be helpful for US federal agencies looking to comply with the Plain Writing act of 2010.

Why the Act?

Let’s remind ourselves why congressman Braley sponsored this act and why President Obama signed it.

Reason 1 – Improve Customer Engagement: Clarity in documents and websites means citizens are more likely to achieve their goals. Whether you are filing a tax return or trying to understand labor rights; clear instructions mean you have a higher chance of completing an action.

Reason 2 – Reduce Cost: If the Feds can make it easier for people to engage, it means lower costs. It means lower costs for the government due to fewer follow-up calls, letters and less time spent chasing. It cuts down on possible litigation due to misunderstood terms and conditions.

What is the importance of plain language? It is the mechanism that drives clarity for websites and documents.

The scanned results

Here are just two of the websites that we scanned:

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation & Federal Highway Administration. The metrics:

Website ReadabilityPassive LanguageLong SentencesAvg SentenceComplex Word HitsDensity of hits


The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation scored a little over 20% when measured for long sentences. Long sentences exceed 25 words. In the context of web communications, this score is not good. The Fed Highway Administration wasn’t far behind at close to 18%. Equally, passive density was too high for the sites. Note that we did limit the scan to the first 100 pages of content, in both cases.

Hidden in the weeds – badness

One of the specific areas that caught our attention was the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the pension site

Aside from the usage of the acronym ‘FAQ’ which is likely unfamiliar to the target demographic (i.e. aged persons), we found many issues with the content itself.

Now, you should note that the FAQ pages are reasonably well laid out and clear. So, the web design guys have done pretty well. The real issues lie in the content under the expandable answers. Under here, lurks some really bad stuff that we picked up in the scan. It’s the proverbial ‘under the rug’ area of any website.

For instance, in answer to the very first question: ‘What is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)?’ we get this:

A: PBGC is a federal agency created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to protect pension benefits in private-sector traditional pension plans known as defined benefit plans. If your plan ends (this is called “plan termination”) without sufficient money to pay all benefits, PBGC’s insurance program will pay you the benefit provided by your pension plan up to the limits set by law. (Most people receive the full benefit they had earned before the plan terminated.) Our financing comes from insurance premiums paid by companies whose plans we protect, from our investments, from the assets of pension plans that we take over as trustee, and from recoveries from the companies formerly responsible for the plans, but not from taxes. Your plan is insured even if your employer fails to pay the required premiums.

Each long sentence is highlighted in light blue. Maroon highlights passive language.

So, let’s assume we understand the purpose of the agency, the next question ups the ante. In answer to ‘What can PBGC tell me about my pension?’ we have:

A: If you’re a participant in a pension plan that PBGC insures but that has not yet been taken over (“trusteed”), PBGC generally will have no information specifically about you, your plan, or your benefits under that plan. PBGC gathers this information only after PBGC trustees the plan. This means you’ll find only general information below about our insurance programs and how they operate, including our guarantees. If PBGC has trusteed your pension plan, we’ll have only limited information about your plan and your benefits until we’ve had time to obtain and review your plan’s records-typically after several months.

The rest of this area of the website has an equally lengthy and complex language. Clearly, not achieving the aim of the Plain Writing act.

Long Sentences and Passive Voice, why important?

VisibleThread analyzes websites and documents for a number of metrics. While other metrics (complex density, hidden verbs, readability) are useful; long and passive sentences are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the Plain Language world. If all you do today, is just cut your long sentences down and write in an active voice, clarity will immediately improve.

To re-iterate, two of the easiest ways you can reduce complexity & introduce clarity are:

  1. Split long sentences and
  2. Convert passive into active voice.

Easy Steps to simplify your website content

What simple steps can you take to improve website quality?

  1. Scan for and eliminate Long sentences: Aside from being harder to interpret, long sentences often mask several different information concepts. They are thus harder to understand. If you split the sentence, it is an excellent first step to achieving clarity. For websites, where readers are actually visually skimming, long sentences are especially inappropriate.
  1. Rewrite passive with a verb-driven approach: Active (verb preceding noun) rather than passive (subject preceding verb) language makes for clearer requirements. It forces an explicit reference to the ‘actor’. The actor is the person or entity responsible for performing the action. This reduces ambiguity and improves the likelihood your customers will complete an action.

Summary Takeaways

  • One year on, some agencies are still falling short of complying with the Plain Writing act.
  • We scanned several agency websites with VisibleThread and found some poor examples.
  • If you eliminate long sentences & passive language, clarity will improve.

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